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peter-sellsMarch 6, 2013, Toronto – We have heard it before, and heard it often: firefighters are consistently listed among the most trusted workers in our society. We love this fact, and repeat it to each other all the time in presentations at conferences, in magazine articles about leadership, or even in internal SOGs on professional conduct. All the while, we outwardly project an aw-shucks self-effacing façade, as if to pretend that we don’t really take enormous personal pride in our collective reputation. We do. We should. But we should not take it for granted.

March 6, 2013
By Peter Sells

March 6, 2013, Toronto – We have heard it before, and heard it often: firefighters are consistently listed among the most trusted workers in our society. We love this fact, and repeat it to each other all the time in presentations at conferences, in magazine articles about leadership, or even in internal SOGs on professional conduct. All the while, we outwardly project an aw-shucks self-effacing façade, as if to pretend that we don’t really take enormous personal pride in our collective reputation. We do. We should. But we should not take it for granted.

I just did a quick search of “firefighter lawyer doctor nurse trust” and found several sites listing the most trusted and least trusted occupations. I chose to look at the most recent listing, which in this case was the Reader’s Digest 2013 Trusted Brands site. As usual, there we are at the top of the most-trusted list, followed by airline pilots, nurses, pharmacists and doctors. The least trusted are politicians, followed ignominiously by car salesmen, football players, financial advisors and trade-union leaders. I was wondering why lawyers were so conspicuously absent, until I remembered that many politicians start their careers as lawyers, until they crawl out from under their rocks to run for office.

The question that is often asked is why we enjoy such trust and respect. I believe that the key is right there in front of us, in that top-five list. What do we have in common – from the perspective of the public we jointly serve – with pilots, nurses, pharmacists and doctors? Well, we all are specially trained, the public has a good general understanding of what we do, we all belong to professional associations (although firefighters are not necessarily professionally certified to the same degree as the others), and we have complete control over the safety of our customers – even their very lives – when we interact with them. Do they trust us and the others in part because they have no other choice but to trust us? I’m not saying that is the case, I am honestly asking that question – based on what we have in common with pilots, nurses, pharmacists and doctors.

Let’s test the theory by applying it to the least-trusted list. Politicians, car salesmen, financial advisors and trade-union leaders do not necessarily have any special training, although many do, and it can be assumed that football players are well-trained athletes. Much of the work of politicians, financial advisors and trade-union leaders is not well-understood and is removed from the public eye. Financial advisors might be certified by a professional body, but not necessarily; and football players may be represented by a players’ association but only with respect to collective bargaining. We either elect or choose to support these five groups – they are more dependent on us than we are on them. Isn’t it ironic that we are in control, yet we don’t extend our trust to any of the groups as a whole? Perhaps that explains why we freely spread word of mouth when we find a car salesman or financial advisor we do trust.

When a firefighter, especially a high-ranking officer, gets arrested and/or terminated for drunk driving, sexual misconduct, fraud, child abuse, spousal abuse, arson, or murder – all of which have occurred – would it not make sense that our pedestal should undergo some form of shrinkage? I need not point out any individual cases, recent or historical; you read the same newspapers and journals that I do. Regardless of what happens, who crosses the line or what line they cross, it is always viewed by the public as an aberration, a deviation from the professional norm. Still, it cannot be taken for granted that we have an unlimited supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards. We all need to try just a little bit harder each day to spit-shine our suits of armour, so that the odd tarnished codpiece doesn’t put a smudge on our gleaming reputation.

Oh, I neglected to mention that the Reader’s Digest site surveyed readers across 12 countries, all in Europe. None of the data is from Canada.

Still trust me?

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.


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